The 5 Types of Online Community Members

Relationship development is crucial for online community managers. Here are the five main types of member you’ll encounter in your online community, and how to best engage with each of them.

Nurturing an online community takes patience and dedication. But if you spend too much time focused on launching new programs for your members rather than engaging with your members, you may find your community is less than thriving.

Relationship development is one of the best ways to spend your time in your community. The thing is, individual members engage in online communities in a variety of ways, and may therefore prefer a certain type of relationship. It helps to know each of the member types you’ll find in your online community, so you can best serve all of your members and ensure a thriving community.

In this post, I’ll talk about how to identify and work with these five online community member types:

  1. The Lurker
  2. The Social Butterfly
  3. The Critic
  4. The Troublemaker
  5. The Tech Challenged

Note: These types are not mutually exclusive, and each member is likely to fall into several categories. The point is not to wedge each of your members into one group, but to get an idea of common behaviors and how best to interact with those behaviors. Really interesting communities have a variety of personalities and viewpoints. It’s your job to celebrate these differences and provide several ways for your members to engage with each other.

#1: The Lurker

You may mistake a lurker for an inactive member, because on the surface they don’t seem to be participating. Some people prefer to observe the public interactions and participate through one-on-one interactions like direct messages, or in smaller private groups. This is different from inactive members who do not visit your community regularly. 

There is often only one way to differentiate between a lurker and an inactive member, and that’s to reach out directly. Lurkers will likely respond if you ask them questions, so check in and see if they need anything. Inactive members are unlikely to respond, but your message may inspire them to come back or communicate why they aren’t around.

TL;DR: Some people are perfectly happy observing conversations, but the only way to know for sure is to ask them. Check in with your lurkers on occasion, and make sure they know how to reach out to you should they ever need to.

#2: The Social Butterfly

Social butterflies need no introduction—they love being a part of things. They respond to the majority of posts, they are comfortable reaching out to everyone, and they are seemingly always around. These are great members to have, as they can help keep your online community lively. It can be tempting to rely on them to keep your community going, but don’t lean on them too much. If they start to feel like an unpaid intern or like they’re being pressured to post a lot, you run the risk of losing them as an active member altogether. 

TL;DR: Prioritize a relationship with your most active members. Appreciate the time they dedicate to your community, ask them for feedback on your ideas, and engage in the content they create to show them that you see them.

#3: The Critic

Every typo, every change will be dissected and evaluated by the critic. They will notice even the slightest inconsistencies in the information you communicate. It is easy to generalize the critic into a know-it-all or annoyance, but most online community members who do this are friends, not foes. Taking the time to communicate errors and missteps means they are invested in your community. 

Other community members will either love or hate a critic’s behavior, and will watch how you interact with their public feedback. A good rule of thumb is to show gratitude when the critic points out a mistake: “Oh, nice catch. Fixed! Thank you!” and move on. Feedback from a critic about policies or administrative decisions should be heard, acknowledged, and even considered. But it should not necessarily dictate what you do.

Dealing with the Critic: A Common Scenario

Here is a common example I’ve experienced in several online communities: merging topics. On many occasions, community members or an administrative team may want to create a new topic space. Before you know, it there are several topic spaces with much less engagement than anticipated.

As a result, the admin team opts to consolidate spaces. This is likely met with a range of reactions, and it is likely that regardless of the critic’s personal opinion they will point out the original decision to create the spaces and challenge the admin team’s decision-making abilities. Probably publicly.

These situations can feel … frustrating. Annoying, even. After all, you’ve likely already invested some time in problem solving to get to the decision. But the critic is only saying what others are likely feeling, and their feedback warrants a conversation beyond an announcement post. Why? Because your community members should be a part of the steering committee. They are the ones invested enough to care what happens. Have an open conversation about the proposed change, with the caveat that you can stick to your decisions if that still makes the most sense.

TL;DR: Give the critic the space to be heard, and be transparent about your decision making, but don’t let their opinions dictate every choice you make. 

#4: The Troublemaker

Loki has entered the chat

Every community will experience disagreements now and then, but true troublemakers take chaos to an entirely different level. These members repeatedly test boundaries to see what they can get away with. Whether they have ulterior motives (like soliciting and spamming), are true trolls, or just lack basic online etiquette and awareness, you initially deal with them all in a similar manner. 

You should have community guidelines and a moderation policy in place to help you redirect their behavior. Be clear and consistent with your moderation, and give them the opportunity to participate within your community’s parameters. If they continue to stir the pot or dance the line, then continue with your moderation policy until they’ve earned removal entirely. 

TL;DR: Make your guidelines and moderation policy clear, and be consistent with their enforcement. This will let your troublemakers know that you will not tolerate those behaviors, and make the rest of the community feel safe.

#5: The Tech Challenged

Most of us interested in digital communities are pretty tech savvy. We know how to get around and problem solve, especially on a community platform we use every day in our business. But this is not the case for all our members. Some do not find learning a new platform as intuitive as the rest of us do.

As a result, the tech-challenged member may look like a lurker, when in reality they are just unsure how to use the platform. Without intervention, they may give up entirely and miss out on the community you’ve built. When reaching out to potential lurkers, you may find they just don’t know where to start or how to engage. 

TL;DR: Pay attention to the questions and issues your members have, and let them guide the creation of tutorials and help documents. Revisit your existing support documentation regularly to ensure relevance. And check in with tech-challenged members after big changes to ensure they feel comfortable with how to proceed.

Effective Community Management Requires Versatility

Running a community takes constant work, and it helps to have an idea of what type of members you have so you can best serve them. Most of your members will behave like more than one of these mentioned types, so don’t be too quick to categorize them. Instead, continually ask for feedback and give your community a few ways to communicate with you. A lurker may not respond to a public post asking for feedback, but if that post mentions the option to email you privately they may take you up on that. Be kind with your responses, both public and private, to ensure they feel comfortable reaching out to you in the future.  

One of the best ways to serve your greater community is to model kind interactions, even during tense situations. This will undoubtedly help to protect the sense of safety and community you’ve spent so much time creating for all your member types.

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  • Jillian B

    Hi, I’m Jillian, SPI’s director of community. I write about all things—you guessed it—community! See you inside!

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